Republican Gov. Tate Reeves speaks at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss., Thursday, July 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Gov. Tate Reeves in his Neshoba County Fair speech on Thursday proposed “an immediate $1,300 across-the-board” pay raise for teachers followed by $1,000 raises for the following two years – all of which would require legislative approval.

The total $3,300 teacher pay raise over three years, coupled with a $1,000 raise lawmakers passed this year, would fulfill a campaign promise Reeves made for a $4,300 teacher pay raise while running for governor in 2019. He caught some criticism from teacher advocates last year when he didn’t include any teacher raise in his state budget recommendation.

“I believe merit must be rewarded,” Reeves said Thursday, after praising teachers for soldiering through the COVID-19 pandemic. “… While some teachers in some other states kept kids chained to laptops or cell phones and pretended it was school, Mississippi insisted on in-person instruction. Other states said, ‘We can’t,’ but Mississippi teachers said, ‘We can.’”

Reeves said he’s fiscally conservative and “spending tax money on new things is not my nature, but education attainment is my priority.” The $1,000 pay raise lawmakers passed this year cost about $51 million.

“I think it’s wrong for us not to demonstrate that we appreciate Mississippi teachers,” Reeves said during the annual political speakings that resumed this year after being canceled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reeves chided “local media” for saying Mississippi has the lowest teacher pay in the nation. When adjusted for cost of living, Reeves said, Mississippi’s teacher pay is only the 37th lowest, and with the raise he’s proposing it would move to 21st.

A recent analysis from the Southern Regional Education Board found Mississippi teachers’ beginning salary and take-home pay for early and mid-career teachers are take home pay is “extremely low” compared to other Southern states, and teachers here make about 15% less than their similarly-educated peers in other jobs in the state.

“It will help us attract the top-tier teachers that our kids deserve,” Reeves said.

Of the governor’s proposed pay raise, Mississippi Association of Educators President Erica Jones said, “We’re pleased that Gov. Reeves intends to deliver on the pay raise plan he campaigned on in 2019. We look forward to working with the governor and other state leaders to see that promise through. Facing a teacher shortage crisis and an average teacher salary that lags behind our neighboring states by between four and seven thousand dollars, we cannot afford to continue down the current path of piecemeal pay raise legislation. Mississippi’s hardworking educators deserve better.”

Many education groups have been at odds with Reeves because of his failure to advocate in last year’s budget proposal for a teacher pay raise and for his refusal to impose a mask mandate in schools this year to combat COVID-19. Reeves has held firm in his opposition to a mask mandate despite rising COVID-19 cases, including among children.

Reeves criticized the Centers for Disease Control’s new mask recommendations.

READ MORE: Back to masking: CDC recommends even the vaccinated should wear masks in public indoor spaces

“Tuesday’s change in the CDC’s mask guidance is foolish and harmful and it reeks of political panic to appear that they are in control,” Reeves said. “It has nothing to do with rational science … In Mississippi, we believe in freedom.”

Reeves praised former President Donald Trump for helping deliver vaccines through “Operation Warp Speed,” but did not make any plea for more Mississippians to get vaccinated as other governors have recently amid a new surge of COVID-19 cases.

READ MORE: Other governors use bully pulpits, incentives to urge vaccination. Where’s Gov. Reeves?

He said “1.2 million Mississippians have chosen to get vaccinated. Others have chosen a different path. I will always defend those people’s right to decide what is best for them and their families.”

Besides teacher pay, focus at the annual political event also centered in on critical race theory, which has been vehemently opposed by many conservatives nationwide in recent months.

Both Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn in their Thursday Neshoba stump speeches vowed to fight next year against critical race theory being taught in Mississippi schools.

Reeves called it “the latest, dumbest idea coming from the East and West coasts.”

“Some of these Ivy League liberals are the dumbest smart people in the world,” Reeves said. “In what world is it OK to teach children that they are born racist? In what world is it OK to tell children they will be judged by the color of their skin and not the content of their character … In Mississippi, our kids should be learning STEM education, not Dem education.”

In some parts of the country schools have come under attack because of their efforts to ensure students have a true understanding of American history, including the multiple instances of racism and oppression, and for discussing with students how racism has shaped public policy and events from past to present.

During a recent interview on conservative leaning SuperTalk radio, Mississippi Superintendent of Education Carey Wright said basic history and social studies are being taught in Mississippi schools.

“I have not heard anything about that in K-12,” she said when asked about critical race theory. “That’s not risen its head. I have not had letters. I’ve not had emails about that. We got our standards, our social studies standards which are based on the history of the United States, and that’s already been out there; it has been out for public comment. It is black and white in terms of facts.

“I have not had anybody express concern about that being taught.”

Still, Reeves said he plans to push lawmakers again next year to approve his “Patriotic Education Fund,” which failed to pass this year. He had proposed $3 million to financially reward schools that combat “revisionist history.” He said Thursday that his plan would promote teaching of “the incredible accomplishments of the American Way.”

Gunn, who focused much of his speech on the dangers of socialism, also vowed to prohibit teaching of critical race theory, which he called “an attempt to reintroduce racism back into our schools and un-do all the progress we have made.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, we can’t take the chance on critical race theory,” Gunn said. “… Socialists seek to turn Americans against each other and against this country by introducing critical race theory in our schools … We cannot allow our schools to teach that one race is better than another. Those days are behind us.”

Of critical race theory, Jones of MAE said, “No matter color, background, or zip code, we want our kids to have an education that imparts honesty about who we are. We will always support the rights of educators to teach history, social studies, and civics in a way that deepens students’ understanding of the world around them and broadens their perspective.”

She said school funding is a bigger impact on the quality of education in the state.

“We hear from educators from across Mississippi all the time. And when they call our office, it’s not to take issue with the state’s history curriculum; it’s to tell us they lack basic resources and feel unheard and unsupported,” Jones said. “We’re far more concerned with educators teaching in schools that, as a result of inadequate funding, lack textbooks and paper or pencils and chalk, and deal with toilets that don’t function or window units that are broken when school starts in August.”

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.

Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.